Iraqi People Facing Humanitarian Crisis


As U.S. and British soldiers fight for control of southern Iraq on their way toward a crucial battle in Baghdad, civilians in large cities like Basra and smaller towns are confronting severe shortages of water, food and medicine. But with the American military insisting that they alone will control the distribution of aid, several international relief organizations are reluctant to participate, not wanting to be identified with a U.S. invasion viewed by many as illegal and launched without U.N. Security Council authorization. The fact that much of the territory now occupied by U.S forces remains unsecure, makes the distribution of supplies by the Pentagon itself that much more difficult and chaotic.

Aid agencies from around the world have demanded that President Bush place the humanitarian relief effort under the supervision of United Nations agencies and personnel with many years of experience in Iraq. With an eye toward post-war administration of Iraq, the Security Council recently voted to transfer control of Iraq’s oil for food program to U.N. Secretary General Koffi Anan.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Denis Halliday, a former Under-Secretary General at the U.N. who administered Iraq’s oil for food program before he resigned in protest against economic sanctions in 1998. Halliday discusses the current humanitarian crisis confronting the people of Iraq and the legal obligation of the American and British invasion force to provide immediate aid to the desperate and frightened population under their control.

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Denis Halliday: Well, for me this war is of course unnecessary. It constitutes blatant aggression by the United States and Britain outside the bounds of the United Nations without any resolution under Chapter 7 of the charter in support. I mean it’s an extraordinary adventure for two permanent members of the U.N. Security Council to undertake a war in complete breach of the charter, international law and without the support of the vast, vast majority of member states of the organization.

And for me of course the crisis now is, that it be stopped if possible and end the humanitarian catastrophe in the making. Failing that, at least those responsible — and that is Britain and the United States — respond to their obligations under the Geneva Conventions and meet the needs for water, food and other needs of the Iraqi people in their area of control.

Between The Lines: Denis Halliday could you give us an assessment of the humanitarian crisis that the Iraqi people are now faced with after the first week of the conflict?

Denis Halliday: Yes, when I was in Baghdad in January and February, the government had distributed three or four months of its basic food supplies — that’s wheat, rice, flour, cooking oil, sugar, tea — all the very minimal, but basic needs of the family, including powdered full cream milk and cheese. I think what’s probably happened is some of the poorer families have sold some of these (food items) in order to buy fresh vegetables, meat, chicken, eggs and fruit. There seems to be some shortage now of food, we understand at least, in Basra in the south of the country, although they also receive these supplies. I understand from the Iraqi Minister of Trade a few days ago that they are actually still trying to send food to people in Basra.

The immediate crisis, however, other than food — which (may happen) in a matter of weeks perhaps — is the immediate problem of water. Iraq is one of these countries that does not have natural potable water supplies. It needs to be treated, it needs to be distributed — that requires of course a system, an infrastructure, but also electric power. Now, when these systems collapse in times of hostilities, whether it’s deliberate or not deliberate, the consequence for the children in particular is catastrophic.

As UNICEF was telling us just recently, in the south of Iraq 25 percent or more of children under 5 years of age are already malnourished. When you’re malnourished at that age and you get unclean water, just simple diarrhea is enough to take your life. And of course, dysentery or other more serious problems, waterborne disease, is an absolute killer. So that I think is the absolute immediate crisis that several millions obviously are facing in Um Qaser, Nasiriyah, Basra, Najaf or Karbala to the south of Baghdad.

Between The Lines: Could you summarize for our listeners what international law says, and the Geneva Convention states about the responsibilities of invading forces such as the United States and the United Kingdom at this moment when increasing numbers of Iraqi citizens are falling under their control in occupied zones in their own country?

Denis Halliday: Well, the Geneva conventions are quite specific. They establish that the responsibility for the humanitarian care of civilians and of course those military types who surrender fall squarely on the shoulders of those in aggression, the combatants — in this case the United States and Britain. That of course presents a huge challenge to the United States in the south of Iraq today, given the difficulties we’ve described with regard to water, and the violence of the response and the difficulty of bringing in food and water to people under these hostile conditions.

But their responsibility is there. This responsibility in fact goes way beyond the hostilities per se, understanding it’s the fourth protocol which says that this obligation extends up to one year. And therefore for the United States to (search for) other sources of funding — although of course any part of the so-called coalition I guess (may be) willing to put in some money — is really negligent of its budgetary and other responsibilities in this connection.

Between The Lines: Do you see any sign that the United States and Britain are taking seriously their obligations and making distribution of food, water and medicine a high priority in this war?

Denis Halliday: No, I’m very sad to say, despite the television coverage, what I’m seeing is propaganda. A lot of hoopla about bringing in one ship into Um Qaser. It wasn’t an orderly system, it looked more like looting to me. But nevertheless, it was distribution from the back of a truck to aggressive young men who came out of these places to look for food and took the packets and the water. But that does not guarantee that the food gets to orphans, to single mothers, to families.

This is a humiliation, in my view, of the Iraqi people who are being forced to beg, in a sense, in their own country under these terrible conditions imposed upon them by the United States and Britain. It’s tragic. To watch it I find it absolutely awful and it must humiliate, not just the Arabs in Iraq, but throughout the entire community.

Between The Lines: Denis Halliday, there seems to be a palpable fear that terrorists will strike in reaction to the U.S. war against Iraq. The Bush administration, on the contrary, basically says that this war in Iraq will make the United State safer. But of course there are others who say that this inflames an already desperate hatred of the United States and its policies — particularly in the Middle East, particularly around Israel and now with this war in Iraq. Do you think that in the end the Bush administration will be vindicated in executing this war to make America a safer place?

Denis Halliday: No, of course I don’t see it that way. In my view the pre-emptive strike that was 9-11in New York City was the beginning of a process and to respond with the sort of violence that Mr. Bush responded with in Afghanistan and now very falsely in my view linking al Qaeda to Iraq — and now with the Iraq war — is of course exactly the wrong way to go about it. This is a guarantee of recruitment of many into terrorist organizations, if that’s the way it works with al Qaeda or others. It’s exactly the way to maintain the frustration, anger and poverty and the neglect and interference that so upsets the Arab community as represented by the people who think like bin Laden, and of course, most Arabs do not, happily.

But that sort of thinking, which is very comparable to Mr. Bush himself, you know good and evil, black and white — it’s a very simplistic sort of messianic way of going about things. I think it’s terribly dangerous and I think we’re helping, sadly, the process of more terrorist involvement because we are perpetuating the presence of our Christian, western ideals, our corruption of their culture and Islamic values in the Middle East. And you know, what on earth are we doing there? Haven’t we learned from the colonial past in this part of the world that we have no competence and no place in the Middle East?





To get more information on the international campaign to protect Iraq’s long suffering civilian population, call Voices in the Wilderness at (773) 784-8065 or visit their Web site at http://www.vitw.org


Scott Harris is the executive producer of Between The Lines. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, nationally syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines (www.btlonline.org ), for the week ending April 11, 2003.

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